"Making the very complex...awesomely simple” is John Spence’s business philosophy and one that he has taught and practiced throughout his professional career which includes a stint as CEO of an international Rockefeller foundation.
For the past 17+ years, Spence has presented workshops, speeches and executive coaching programs to 300+ organizations worldwide including the likes of Microsoft, IBM, GE, Merrill Lynch, AT&T, Verizon and others, including groups in the marine industry. With a lengthy list of impressive credentials including serving on multiple college posts and advisory councils, Spence is considered an authority in strategic thinking, high performance teams and leadership development. He will serve as the Sail America Industry Conference keynote presenter and will address the fundamentals of business excellence, delivering keys for success in today’s challenging economy.
Waypoints Editor Wanda Kenton Smith spoke with Spence about his passion for business and how companies and business leaders can enjoy greater success. He also provided tips on how conference attendees can maximize their return on this educational investment, post event.
Waypoints: Your main Sail America Industry Conference Session is entitled, “Achieving Business Excellence.” I understand you are bringing the best of 15 years worth of research and hands-on corporate experience to this presentation. How do you edit down 15 years of research into what is sure to be one action-packed learning experience … and is the content customized for the sailing industry somewhat, or the same principles any business could apply?
Spence: The way I build my programs is to look for patterns. I study all of the businesses I've worked with and the thousands of books I've read and try to pull out the common theme that runs across a particular topic, such as business excellence, and boil it down to the handful of core ideas that seem to appear over and over again as fundamental to that topic. I also customize all of my talks, so there will be some general information that applies to all businesses, but because I've been involved in the marine industry for more than 20 years I will talk specifically about how the information I am bringing relates specifically to the sailing industry.
Waypoints: I also understand you read a minimum of 100 – 120 business books a year and have done so since 1989! WOW! What are your top five most recommended reads, and why?
Spence: Actually, I just wrote a blog that had a list of the top 40 books I recommend for someone who wants to gather good, solid business information (www.blog.johnspence.com). If I had to pick just my top five, which is nearly impossible, I would likely recommend: The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Vern Harnish, Nobel Enterprise by Darwin Gillett, Good to Great by Jim Collins and Lessons in Excellence from Charlie Trotter by Paul Clarke. I like these books because each of them gave me a big idea that truly transformed the way I look at business. That's what I look for in a great business book; am I learning something new, impactful and important that will make a dramatic positive impact in my ability to build and sustain highly successful company?
Waypoints: Specifically, you reference “a formula” for business success … is there really such a thing that applies to all businesses, large and small? Would this be the same formula for all sailing businesses? … and are you going to share it?
Spence: Yes, there is absolutely a formula for business success that applies to nearly every business big or small. It is a handful of core ideas that form the foundation for running an excellent business, whether you're selling candy bars, jet airplanes or sailboats. To become world-class at anything one of the keys to success is understanding the fundamentals of the endeavor. The fundamentals of the golf swing, fingering techniques on a guitar or violin, brushstrokes for the painter, board management in chess, or questioning skills for top salesperson. To become great you need to master the fundamentals and what I will be presenting are the core fundamental strategies and skills that every businessperson must master if they want to run a truly great company.
Waypoints: Has the content for your presentation changed as the economy has changed or are the principles unchanging?
Spence: Great question; and the answer is yes, my content has changed quite a bit in the last 10 years. There has been a shift away from relying strictly on the quality of your products and services to understanding that you are now competing with everyone in the world and that quality is table stakes. You have to deliver great quality just to stay in business. So the big shift, that is driven some changes in my model, is the massive power of the consumer and their ever increasing demands. Customers today have nearly limitless options, they are far better informed than ever before and refuse to do business with anyone who does not meet their minimum standards for quality, reliability, value… and especially superior customer service.
Waypoints: You address what you call the “pattern” of business success … can you explain what this is and without stealing thunder from presentation, give an example or two?
Spence: Well, let me just give you the first element of the formula or pattern of business success: Talent. I will make this about as clear as I possibly can: the success of your business is directly tied to the quality of the people you can get and keep on your team. Competitors can copy your technology, copy your distribution, copy your marketing, beat you on prices….but if you have the most talent on your team you will win. So I will spend quite a bit of time talking about how to find, keep and grow top talent on your team as the first of the four key elements of the pattern for business success.
Waypoints: I know you discuss the need for companies to prioritize specific elements in order to build and sustain their companies. Will all companies have the same or similar priorities?
Spence: No, absolutely not, the areas for them to focus on will be unique to their culture, their customer base, how well they're doing now and what weaknesses their business currently has. I'm guessing that everyone who attends my talk will have some similar issues, but there'll also be very unique things that each person takes away from the session about what they need to do for their specific business.
Waypoints: How important is internal and external communication for businesses … and how much weight do you place upon this component in analyzing a company’s position and making recommendations for improvement?
Spence: Communication is key. Internally, it is absolutely essential to build a culture of open, honest, robust and transparent communication. One of my favorite business axioms is: people without access to information do not have to take accountability for their actions. If you want to have a successful organization you need to share as much information as you possibly can with the people on your team so that they have all the data they need to make good decisions, take action as quickly, and move your organization in the direction you want it to go. From an external standpoint the ideas behind communication that are most important to me include clarity, consistency and repetition. You need to send a very vivid and clear brand message and deliver that message over and over again, across multiple channels, to your key target market so that they deeply understand what your business, brand and product stand for and how it is differentiated from everything else in the marketplace.
Waypoints: In a tough economy like we’ve all experienced, it seems harder than ever to maintain margins and profitability. What will your session cover in this regard?
Spence: The key here is to pick a highly desirable target market and surround them with a web of value. How can you take your top customers and give them more of what they want, more value, more products, and more services in order to position yourself as a trusted advisor. When you can do this with the right group of customers, they will gladly pay more to do business with you. How much more? Multiple research studies show that a highly loyal and engaged customer will pay up to a 23% price premium to do business with a company that they have created a positive relationship with.
Waypoints: How about market share? What is your approach to gaining market share based on best practices of the many businesses you’ve studied or consulted with?
Spence: From my point of view, the absolute best way to grow market share is to deliver high quality products and services and massive value to your target customers… and then turn them into evangelists for your business. The strongest marketing and advertising you can possibly get is positive word-of-mouth, so I'll be covering this in detail during the seminar.
Waypoints: What will you address in terms of marketing for your business in today’s challenging economy? What are some elements in the marketing plan that successful businesses share in common?
Spence: When I look at a highly successful business there are a handful of elements that allow them to be successful in their marketing: a clear understanding of their target customer; a strong brand platform that resonates with their target customers; and very unique in value proposition; consistently delivering on the brand promise; and then creating the necessary systems and processes to ensure that happy customers generate lots of word-of-mouth and referrals. I believe if you did all the things I just listed above, and did them extremely well, you would have a very focused and effective marketing program.
Waypoints: Give us a hint about how the best companies “own the voice of the customer” (your term!) … and what does that mean, exactly?
Spence: Owning the voice of the customer simply means that you do a better job than anyone else in the marketplace at listing to, understanding and connecting with your target customers. You do this in a myriad of ways, from one-on-one meetings to surveys to focus groups to mystery shopping and 100 more tactics that are all combined to deeply understand what your customer wants, needs, and what they are willing to pay for.
Waypoints: Last question … many of us have attended great conferences over the years and walked away with tremendous tips, techniques and practices … but the challenge occurs after we return to our respective businesses and become swallowed up the pressures of daily distractions and running our businesses. What advice do you have for small business owners and executives in terms of how to focus most effectively, post event?
Spence: Pick just three things that you've learned, the three that you feel will have the most positive impact on your business right away, and then keep those in front of you until you get them completed. Put them on every agenda, put them on your screensaver, talk about them in every meeting, put due dates on the calendar, set clear goals around each of them… become incredibly focused on those three items and be relentless until you can check them off… and add three more.
Wanda Kenton Smith is editor of Waypoints and Sail America News, president of Marine Marketers of America, national marketing columnist for Soundings Trade Only, and president of Kenton Smith Marketing. She also speaks on marketing topics at industry events and conferences around the country. For information, visit www.kentonsmithmarketing.com